No room for gray


As fighter pilots, we used to half-joke about the difference in regulatory approach between Air Force and Navy aviation.  The punchline was that an Air Force regulation explicitly stated what you were allowed to do, whereas a Navy regulation stated what you could not.  The general consensus was that the Air Force was becoming, or had become, too rigid in thinking because we were bound by these regulations that told us explicitly what we could do.  The corollary to that was: if it wasn’t written down, then we couldn’t do it.  All cynicism aside, I think the critique of becoming too rules-bound is completely valid.  Imagine if you operated in an environment where you were bound to follow rules and regulations and whatever you were possibly allowed to do had to be in writing. So, enter ambiguous hypothetical issue 1: “am I allowed to X?”  Answer: if it’s not stated in a regulation that you can, then you can’t.  Doesn’t matter how logical or sensible or anything of the like, not written = not allowed.  Crazy, right?  Crazy, maybe, but not fiction.  I lived it in the military on a daily basis – people, anywhere from the greenest of enlistee to the most senior generals, shackled by the almighty Air Force Instruction, or “AFI.”  But as I progressed through my career and began working with other Services, I realized this phenomenon was not restricted to only Air Force circles.  Despite our envy of Naval aviation philosophy, I quickly realized that Navy officers succumbed to the same pitfalls: not in writing, not going to do it.  This began to fascinate (and kind of frighten) me, this nearly automaton-discipleship of “the regs.”  And after some root cause analysis (something I’ll talk to later), I came to the conclusion that there are generally two axioms by which a mediocre officer was able to achieve “success” in the system.  Here are what I will henceforth label as the Two Commandments of Mediocre Leaders:


To not decide = To not be wrong


To not commit = To not be held accountable


I saw this time and time again and as I progressed in rank, I realized why this was happening and the answer is that it all comes down to an organization’s true value system.  In other words, what is truly valued, all the “vision statement” and “ethos” and other fluff aside, is clearly conveyed by this question: what does the system really reward?


In the military we talked about “strategic vision,” and “thinking outside the box” and all that other crap, but at the end of the day, the true measure of an officer really wasn’t that.  Your value rather boiled down to two things:


Thing 1: Make your boss happy


Thing 2: Don’t get fired


And an officer typically continued to progress so long they didn’t violate the Two Commandments and adhered to the two “Things.”  For so many, in terms of Thing 2, in the back of officers’ minds was: “if they come after me with X, I am covered because I followed rules A, B and C.”  Sorry, friends, that is just no way to lead.  But you can’t blame the person themselves because, just as any self-aware human, they adapt to the environment in order to survive and eventually thrive.


Returning back to the theme of regulation discipleship as to how it relates to the Two Commandments – the self-serving leader will always err to the side of safety, the side of being able to ‘defend’ their actions if and when called into question.  In doing so, they will use the top-cover of the almighty Regulation.  Is it the right thing, i.e. right for their people?  Doesn’t matter because ‘right’ by their definition is what is in the rulebook.  In that respect, perhaps I need to revise the Two Commandments to this:


To not decide on something that’s not in a reg  = To not be wrong


To not commit to something that’s not in reg = To not be held accountable


In response, may I submit the following counterargument in the form of these two axioms:


           Just because it’s in writing doesn’t mean it’s right


           Just because it’s not in writing doesn’t mean it’s wrong


Let’s take a pause here for now.  Think about your organization’s performance assessment system(s).  At the end of the day, all superfluousness aside, what are you and/or your people really assessed on?  From my time as a fighter pilot, here were some of my real metrics from my 20 years’ worth of performance reports:


– How much money I saved the Air Force (you read that correctly)


– The value of the programs I managed


– The number of people I led 


– The amount of/value of assets I oversaw


And these were the unwritten metrics I garnered:


– How much my bosses liked me


– How competent of a pilot people generally thought I was


If you read the Air Force’s core values, it really doesn’t say anywhere in there anything to the tune of “we need leaders that manage / save a lot of money,”, or “it’s really important to us that our officers be likable guys and gals,” but time and time again, those were some of the metrics by which I was assessed.  Why?  The answer isn’t as important for this discussion.  I only pose the rhetorical question to highlight the disparity between what an organization professes to be important and what they, when the rubber actually meets the road, assess a person on.


Why am I talking about this phenomenon?  Two reasons.  The first is to allow for some critical self-reflection, whether that be personal or organizational. The second, more germane reason, is to begin to address the question most have at this point which is: “if there was so much malfeasance afoot in DIA, why didn’t someone from the military intervene?”